As consumers continue to inquire about the environmental footprint of the products they purchase, companies are beginning to respond with life cycle analyses and green product labeling. This week we caught up with PeerAspect founder Scott Kaufman to discuss the challenges of life cycle analysis and how the development of new standards could help improve product transparency efforts.
GT: For those who are unfamiliar with the term, how do you define life cycle analysis (LCA)?
SK: There are five main stages of a product’s life cycle, and life cycle analysis is a cradle-to-grave accounting of the environmental impacts of a product or a service for each of those stages. For each of the main stages of the life cycle, you have resource inputs in the form of materials and energy, and environmental outputs– emissions into the water and air). A full LCA accounts for all those raw inputs and outputs and translates them into environmental impacts. A carbon footprint is an LCA as well, but one that is limited to the global warming impacts.
GT: When it comes to supply chain, how far do you go?
SK: That’s the question of where you draw the boundaries and where you cut off your efforts to actually measure things. You could theoretically go on forever by going down to the most minute detail and never stop measuring. There is, unfortunately, no perfect answer to that question. The only solution to that is to have industry standards that everyone agrees on. This is what we’re going to agree on. So when we measure a specific type of product, we know that it’s a fair playing ground with other people who are doing this kind of work.
GT: Isn’t it possible that when a company reduces its impact in one area, it increases its impact in another area?
SK: It’s like Whack-a-Mole, right? I think that that’s part of the issue I saw with just doing carbon footprinting. I think that carbon gets a lot of the attention, but sometimes, when you make a reduction in carbon it might kick up in another impact area. So you want to be as broad, but as thorough, as possible. So it’s important to have specialists with knowledge of the supply chain issues we’re talking about so that they can identify those tradeoffs.
GT: Life cycle analysis is an exciting concept, but it’s still in its nascent stage. How do you evaluate a product’s LCA in the absence of widespread disclosure and common standards?
SK: It’s still fairly new, but I would that that’s not a reason not to do it.. Yes, there are leading edge companies that are blazing trails and that’s one reason to be in that camp of companies is to be defining the rules as you do the rules. The companies that are pursuing this area are, by default, defining the rules of the game.
One example of that is the beverage industry. The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable is a group of roughly 16-20 companies such as Pepsi Co., Coca-Cola Co. and Diageo that got together and basically wrote a set of product category rules with the help of a consulting group, non-profits and Columbia University. So standards exist but it depends on the industry and the companies within the industry that want to take a leadership stance.
The cross-industry body that’s doing the most work and has the most industry buy-in is The Sustainability Consortium. They have the most funding, the most momentum and have done the most work marrying nongovernmental organizations and academic inputs as well. I’m feeling pretty optimistic about what they’re going to do based on that.
GT: What is the role of third-party entities in the LCA process?
SK: As companies increasingly model the life cycles of the products they produce, there is a greater need for a third-party to look at those models and make sure they accurately represent the environmental effects. A lot of the time, companies are making a public claim that a particular product has less of an impact than a product made the good old-fashioned way. If we’re going to make real reductions and make real progress toward more sustainable products, we need to make sure that these models and these claims are vetted.
GT: As standards are developed, ESG analysts may start looking to LCAs as a reflection of a company’s performance. How do you account for the ‘use’ phase of the product, which contributes to a product’s footprint, but which are beyond the company’s control? Is it fair to evaluate a company’s environmental performance based on how consumers use its product?
SK: That definitely depends on the product. There are some products where most of the life cycle impacts are upstream, but certainly if you’re talking about something like an air conditioner, the consumer decisions play a large role. I certainly think that the action needs to take place before the consumer make the decision, ideally there would be a policy to ensure a clear set of rules everyone is playing by and there would be clear targets that everyone has to meet and we just figure out how to parse out the emissions allowances associated with that.
I know that the Consortium is handling this right now on a “check this box” basis, asking questions of their members, like, ‘Do you have a well-funded advertising campaign, informing consumers about the benefits of washing in cold water?’ An objective, but still broad ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question is the way to get at it first. I guess you have to start drilling down from there until you hit the jack pot.
Scott Kaufman is co-founder of PeerAspect, a global network of experts that helps companies verify environmental models and solve sustainability problems. He will be sharing more insights into the state of life cycle science at NAEM’s 20th annual EHS Management Forum in Naples, Fla. on Oct.17-19.